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Trump's civil fraud trial begins in New York

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In New York, former President Donald Trump sat in a courtroom today just feet from New York's attorney general, Letitia James, on the first day of his $250 million fraud trial. James alleges that Trump engaged in a conspiracy to falsify property values to get better rates on loans and insurance. Trump's lawyers say what he did is not fraud; it is real estate. Well, NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in the courtroom today. She is outside the courthouse now. Hey there.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. OK, so go back. Start with the courtroom. What was it like in there today?

BERNSTEIN: So there were these hugely important figures - the New York attorney general, the once and would-be future president and one of his sons, Eric Trump, who largely runs the real estate company. They were all together in this one New York courtroom, seen better days. It kind of made it feel like a smaller New York story about business and banking and accounting. There's just one way into the courtroom for Trump, and that was by walking right in front of AG James. This is what she had said about him just moments before, outside the courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LETITIA JAMES: Donald Trump and the other defendants have committed persistent and repeated fraud. Last week, we proved that in our motion for summary judgment. Today, we will prove our other claims.

BERNSTEIN: Trump also took his own opportunity to address the public, speaking to reporters in a chaotic scrum in the hallway outside the courtroom. He called the trial a sham and a scam and politically motivated.

KELLY: All righty. So that was what Trump was saying, addressing the public. What were the attorney general's lawyers saying in their opening argument?

BERNSTEIN: So lawyers from her office sketched out the evidence. They'll lay out emails, video clips, which they say show a wide-ranging conspiracy to falsify property values, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars, in order to get favorable bank rates. They say Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and others all took steps, separately and together, to outright lie about property values. And they showed some emails they say will prove the Trumps did this with intent. For example, they said when Donald Trump was caught lying about the value of his Trump Tower triplex, he, his sons and his employees pumped up the value of other properties to make the balance come out even.

KELLY: But Trump's lawyers are saying that this is not fraud. Expand on that.

BERNSTEIN: Right. So his own lawyers said, look, there were disclaimers all over the place. The bank should have done its own assessments. This lawyer, Charles Kise (ph) said Trump's statements had no material impact. The bank didn't lose money. A lawyer for Trump's company, Alina Habba, went even further than that. She said she came from a real estate family and, quote, "maybe the attorney general doesn't know this is normal practice, but the banks do their own valuations." She also said that Mar-a-Lago could probably be sold for a billion dollars - that's billions with a B. And the judge pushed back on that. He said, quote, "you can't look at a property 10 years later and say now what it's worth. The point of a statement is to say what it was worth then."

KELLY: Andrea, let me skip ahead and ask, what's on for tomorrow?

BERNSTEIN: We expect more testimony from Trump - from the accountant for Trump at Mazars USA. Coming up - other executives and Michael Cohen, his former executive vice president, will be testifying about how Trump did all this.

KELLY: And Trump himself - he was there. How did he react to all this?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, he sat kind of quietly, a little hunched. It made him look small. And at one point on his way out, he seemed like he was trying to ignore the attorney general. But then he turned and looked at her and glared. I was sitting right behind her, so I had a pretty good look at that.

KELLY: Wow. All right. Lots more to come. That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein outside the courthouse in New York. Thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Bernstein